Can Police Search My Cell Phone?

In a victory for privacy rights, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that if police want to search a cell phone incident to arrest, get a warrant. (Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie)

Having listened to the oral arguments I think the only surprise in this decision is that it was unanimous.  Okay, maybe it was a little surprising that the court placed a roadblock (some call the constitution) in the way of the government because for the last several decades, that roadblock was but a mere speed bump granting police authority to search without a warrant and eroding the rights granted by the Fourth Amendment.  The technological development of smartphones provides a wealth of personal information about our personal private lives.  This decision acknowledges that these devices are now more than just simple phones and finally placed a reasonable and clearly defined rule that restricts when police can search a cell phone following an arrest.

What’s this all about?

This case affects anyone who has the unfortunate experience of being placed under arrest (misdemeanor or felony) and happens to be in possession of a smartphone, which statistically means that most people who are arrested will be impacted by this case.

The “search Incident to arrest” doctrine

The U.S. Supreme Court first established that police can conduct a warrantless search of a person incident to arrest in Chimel v. United States.  This meant that police could search the area within an arrestee’s immediate control to protect law enforcement against physical danger (officer safety) and to prevent the destruction or concealment of evidence.  A few years later in United States v. Robinsonthe Court ruled that police could open closed containers when searching incident to arrest without a warrant.

What this opinion does is require police to seek the approval to search a cell phone from a detached and neutral judge, simply put, get a warrant.

Officer safety

In discussing officer safety the court said that digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to cause harm.  Police are free to examine the “physical aspects” of a phone to ensure it will not be used a weapon (whether there is a razor blade) but once the phone is secured the physical threat is eliminated and any further efforts to view the phone’s digital data must require a warrant.

Evidence destruction

When addressing evidence destruction, the government argued that remote wiping could erase any and all evidence stored on a cell phone. The Court struck down this tenuous point by declaring two simple solutions 1) take out the phones batteries or turn off the phone. 2) Place the phone in a “Faraday bag” an aluminum sandwich bag that apparently a number of police agencies already use.

This decision was unusually straightforward and recognized that cell phones contain your whole life not just who you placed a call too.  You can bet that all of the justices own cell phones along with the majority of adult Americans, which probably explains why there was a unanimous agreement in this restraint on government action.

Charleston criminal defense lawyer

If you have been arrested and the police recovered evidence from your cell phone that was an illegal search call an experienced and trusted Charleston criminal defense attorney at the Dale Savage Law Firm to defend your case today (843) 530-7813.

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